Michael Sull: The Beauty and Personality of Handwriting

July 21, 2020 Updated: July 21, 2020

One of master penman Michael Sull’s favorite things to write is people’s names.

“Because so many people can’t write their names! They scribble their names. You scribble your name, you’re showing a lot of disrespect for yourself. I mean, your name is your most personal form of identification. You’ve had it since you were born. And you should write it well,” Sull said.

“In the old days, if you wrote your name well, you were really admired; people could tell if you were a cultured person, that you cared about who you were, it showed about your education, there was a sense of identity. Today nobody thinks about that, and it’s a shame.”

“So I love to show people how beautiful their names are,” Sull said.

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Writing their names in such a beautiful way has sometimes brought people to tears. (Courtesy of Michael Sull)

Sull is credited with the revival of Spencerian script—cursive handwriting—rescuing the American style of writing from near extinction.

“There have been hundreds of times—I’ve been doing this for over 40 years—when I write people’s names and tears come out. And it’s not me, it’s just this style brings that out because it shows them how beautiful handwriting is, how beautiful their name can be, and nobody does it anymore,” Sull said.

When you converse in person, there are a million little visual cues to take in, Sull said. And you might think that’s lost in text correspondence, but it’s not if you know how to really write. The beauty of Spencerian script, with its nature-inspired curves and room for freedom and embellishment, is that it makes handwriting the act of translating your human thoughts and emotions into visible language.

Sull’s own great passion for handwriting has inspired a movement, to his delight.

“You’ve got to be a little crazy to do what I did, you know. I wrote a 600-page book, and when I was done, I was $100,000 in debt and had to declare bankruptcy. And I didn’t care, because that wasn’t important to me. Money comes and money goes,” he said.

“And yet, that’s the way your passion really drives you to do these things. And people see that, and it’s catching. They become part of that with you, and then it enters their life.”

His one-man mission slowly bore fruit; Sull took on students, who then took on students, and now with social media, his work has spread all around the world in an instant, and the interest is only growing. People find so much beauty in this traditional handwriting style they are brought to tears, even in places where a different language is used. Sull’s book has been translated into Chinese, for instance, which has nothing resembling Latin letters.

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Sull’s penmanship greets students at Platt R. Spencer elementary school in Geneva, Ohio. (Courtesy of Michael Sull)

A Forgotten Script

Few people spend time considering the history of the mechanics of handwriting. After all, it seems to come naturally to us.

“Just like nobody writes a book about how to brush your teeth, it’s such a commonplace activity,” Sull said.

Sull’s mother had beautiful handwriting, and as a secretary, she wrote everything by hand until the advent of the typewriter. But Sull himself didn’t do much writing until after college and after the Navy. He couldn’t find a single book that taught handwriting, but in the 1970s, calligraphy became popular, with guilds popping up all over the country.

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Sull, a Vietnam-era U.S. Navy veteran, served onboard the USS Pawcatuck from 1971–1973 as a quartermaster. He is the recipient of the American Spirit Honor Medal. (Courtesy of Michael Sull)

“I became involved in that, and I really enjoyed it a lot,” he said. But at the time, calligraphers across America were writing in European styles, following in the styles of a few famous English and other European type creators. In grade school, students would learn Palmer-style cursive, which was adapted and simplified from Spencerian script.

“Everybody forgot about American penmanship, and most of the old masters were gone, passed away,” Sull said.

He had a stroke of fortune—being in a calligraphy guild led to meeting one of the last living master penmen.

“His name was Paul O’Hara, he was born in 1880. When I met him, he was 90,” Sull said. O’Hara was a master from what is considered the Golden Age of penmanship and studied under the master penman Charles Paxton Zaner, who founded the Zanerian College of Penmanship (now the Zaner-Bloser Company).

“And there was another gentleman, his name was David Fairbanks; he was born in 1913, and he was a master at engrossing, which is doing those big fancy certificates.

“No one had talked to him about penmanship, when I met him, for 50 years. So I renewed his interest in it; it was something he loved very much.

“He told me about the history and the story of American penmanship. … He taught me this beautiful style of penmanship,” Sull said. “American handwriting is really, really unique.”

A Style Based on Nature

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A quadruple twister “O” in ornamental penmanship penned on John Neal deluxe lined black paper. (Courtesy of Michael Sull)

Platt Spencer was a Romantic. Born in 1800 in a small New York village, he spent his time surrounded by dense forests and by the water. Spencer developed a great love for the beauty of nature, to him a creation of God.

The Spencerian script is distinct in its sense of movement, curvature, variety, and contrast—elements he gleaned from nature. The English scripts in use—what the Declaration of Independence was written in—were uniform and by comparison rigid; in this style, everyone’s handwriting is the same. Spencer’s script allowed for individuality and personality to shine through. He began teaching handwriting while still a teenager, and the beauty and personality of this style made it a widespread and enduring one.

“It allowed people to write individually yet have a reference for how to make it look nice,” Sull said.

From the Civil War up to the typewriter, our story is all handwritten, and primarily in Spencerian script.

Over time, others would modify Spencerian script into more simplified versions of American cursive with different methodologies, such as the D’Nealian cursive style, Zaner-Bloser cursive, the Palmer method, and something between cursive and “print” with detached letters that still resemble the cursive style. Today, few schools teach cursive at all; we hunch over and scribble, and then dismiss handwriting as inferior.

Ironically, the changes we have made for efficiency’s sake come at the cost of aches and pains—not just writer’s cramp in your hand, but the subsequent leaning over your work, and the arm and shoulder, and even back pains. Legibility then suffers too.

Spencerian script, on the other hand, requires for many a change in grip, how you hold your arm, and your posture. 

The Storyteller

In the mid-1980s, Sull applied several times to the International Calligraphy Convention to teach Spencerian script, and got rejection after rejection.

“It’s part of our history, so I became a one-man mission to write the biggest, most comprehensive book on American penmanship that has ever been done, so that it would bring it back,” Sull said.  There were three books Sull could find that mentioned Spencer, and one of them said Spencer was English. Sull was determined to bring the script back, because if people only knew about it, he was sure they would love it.

Manila, Philipines Spencerian Workshop

Dikirim oleh Michael Sull pada Minggu, 10 Juli 2016

“They said, ‘That’s just cowboy lettering,'” he said. “Cowboy in that term means a sense of individual freedom, cowboys are known to do what needed to be done, they don’t stand on ceremony, so it was thought that this kind of writing was a free form that just anybody did, there was no discipline to it. But they were wrong. There is quite a bit to it.”

Sull decided to start his own program, a week-long course on the shores of Lake Erie, where Spencer lived. He directed it for 26 years, later handing it on to co-director and protege Harvest Crittenden who still conducts his week-long course Spencerian Saga today. Sull finished his 600-page, two-volume book in 1989 and went back to give the first copy to his teacher, who was then 101 years old.

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Master penman Michael Sull. (Courtesy of Michael Sull)

“It was very emotional. He certified me as a master penman and passed away six months after that,” he said. “So ever since then, it’s been my goal to bring back our heritage of American penmanship.”

Part of being a master penman is making a commitment to teach, and Sull has been to nearly 40 states and 20 countries where people continue to be awed by this beautiful style of writing.

“It’s not me, I’m just the storyteller,” he said. “That’s how much people really admire this American penmanship that everybody had just forgotten about.”

The Human Touch

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Sull wrote this message for his students and friends this past spring, adding on social media, “As we shoulder the corona virus pandemic in our own way, I constantly have warm thoughts for each of you—your kindness to me, your enthusiasm for penmanship and the joy I get from teaching you. During this time, I wish you the best of health for you and your loved ones, and offer the following to you.” (Courtesy of Michael Sull)

Spencerian script can be used for everything from note-taking to thoughtful thank you cards; it isn’t always “fancy,” but it’s easy to see why people so love the embellishments. Along with teaching, many master penmen take on some work for graphic designers (the Coca Cola logo is Spencerian) and take commissions—typically fancy certificates (called “engrossing”). Perhaps it says something about us, that when we want to celebrate human achievement like a graduation, a victory, a wedding, we prefer something done by hand, imbued with human emotion.

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Sull is sometimes commissioned to create certificates marking important events in people’s lives. (Courtesy of Michael Sull)

“It is a unique, human endeavor,” Sull said. Aside from writing names, he enjoys being commissioned to write quotes and poems that hold a lot of meaning for the gift recipient, which he says is a beautiful expression of human emotion.

“By not teaching handwriting, children, adults in their 20s, there’s a lot of people who can’t read handwriting. So they can’t read the documents that founded our country. They can’t read the Declaration, the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, they can’t read letters that their grandparents wrote,” he said.

“They’re missing out on a huge part of the actual communication that established our country, what we call social correspondence of people who came before us, in our family, or the people who were instrumental in our country.

“I mean, what would it be like if we just learned all about the Civil War by emails?” he said. “There is a certain amount of your physical being revealed when you write, and that is part of your expression to do it, and it’s part of what is received by the reader to know what you were like when you wrote it.”

“Your work, your lettering, your handwriting, won’t look like anyone else’s,” he said. “It’s you, and there is nothing else that’s like you.”

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Sull wrote this for National Handwriting Day on Jan. 23, 2014:
“Handwriting is the intimate expression of emotions, wishes and dreams made visible on paper. Through this personal medium we have the privilege of sharing our Humanity with everyone, or with no one one at all. It is an intensely private occupation that can never be exactly duplicated yet always reveals a glimpse of the writer’s soul.” (Courtesy of Michael Sull)

People light up when they realize this, and find a unique way to express themselves.

“Nobody else’s handwriting will look like yours. When it comes out of your pen, it comes out of your pen because it came from your thoughts,” he said. Even though everyone has a computer in their pocket and the world is on a digital path, we still have human thoughts and emotions and a wish to express them. … And the most personal way to do that that’s visible is handwriting.”

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Sull has fun with flourishing at a workshop in Dallas. (Courtesy of Michael Sull)

“It is a very animated form of expression,” he said. “You can put inflection in your lettering just like you do with your voice, with fancy letters, or more shade, or bigger letters. It changes text to visible language, and there’s nothing else that does that. It’s unique human activity, and American penmanship does it to a greater extent than any other language that uses the Roman alphabet.

“The first time I taught in St. Petersburg, Russia, Russian uses a calligraphy form called Cyrillic alphabet, it’s a heavy broad-pen hand, heavy letters. It’s very beautiful, but very rigid. When I wrote the names of my students, a number of them had tears in their eyes and cried, because they didn’t realize they could have such freedom and such beauty in writing their names.”

Spencer wrote his students’ names too, Sull said. He would do it beautifully and give it to them as an example, and say, “Copy that!” It would inspire them to improve their own work.

“It’s a very long tradition,” Sull said.